Spot the Differences: Racing the Single Scull vs. Racing the Eight

Written by Concept2 NZ on July 19th, 2018.

With the International rowing season in full-swing, and the world championships less than two months away, we compare the two boat-classes at either end of the rowing event spectrum and look at some of the variables between them that help to make rowing a diverse and exciting sport to watch!

Unlike many other sports that offer various different racing distances, all rowing races in the Olympic Games are raced over 2000m. Instead, rowing events are differentiated by boat class in which athletes either sweep or scull in crew combinations ranging from 1 person (single scull) to eight people (sweep 8+). While the skills required to row in the various different boat classes are relatable on a general level, (and indeed there are many athletes who have parlayed their transferable skills into gold in multiple boat classes), to the trained eye (and athlete) there are considerable differences in the specialized skills required to make one boat-class go well, compared to another. We could be here all day comparing all of the various boat classes to each other, but today we will look at just some of the differences in the racing experience between two boats- the single scull, and the eight.

Race Duration/Speed

One of the most obvious differences between eights and single sculls is speed. As the only boat class with just one ‘crew member’ the single scull is the slowest boat class in rowing, while the eight person + coxswain boat is, understandably, the quickest. Taking a look at the data for the top three crews in men's fields for each of these events at the recent world cup III regatta in Lucerne as an example, it is clear that the eights are significantly faster than the single sculls, and that this has an overall effect on the duration of the race.

Single Sculls Speed Table
single speed
Eight+ Speed Table
eight speed

Looking at last weekends results, the single sculls final took almost 1min 30secs longer than the eights final, the equivalent of the eights adding another 500m (or more) to the race distance. This makes for a significant difference between the eights and singles races. The high speeds of the eight, and the resulting ‘shortening’ of the race duration, makes for a fast-paced, high-intensity racing environment, leaving less room for error. On the single sculls side, the ‘longer’ duration of the race with just one person in the boat, adds an extra level of endurance as athletes prepare for a race that is nearly 25% longer than their big-boat counterparts. This also changes the tactical side of racing for a single sculler, leaving more time to recover from weaknesses (such as a slower start) or to settle into the race before putting the pressure on the competition.

The eights on the other hand do not have as much opportunity for delayed tactics and must try to minimize any advantage between the crews, less they run out of course to chase them down. The difference in duration between these races is a careful consideration of coaches in preparing their crews physiologically and mentally for the challenge ahead, and the race tactics they will employ to better the opposition. 

171001 Rowing WorldChampsUSA (503) C2-519

Stroke Rate

Given that the eight is considerably faster than the single scull, it might make sense that there would also be a difference in rating (stroke rate/SPM) between the two boat classes.
To consider the differences in stroke rate between athletes and crews in the single scull and eights boat classes, we looked at the average stroke rate of the previously mentioned crews, both individually and as an average for their respective boat classes, this is what we found:


At first glance, it is clear that on average the eights crews rated higher than the single scull athletes. There is also very clearly a greater variation in average stroke rates between crews in the single scull field, than there are between the eights.

Among the men's single scullers, Robbie Manson stands out with the highest average stroke rate (42.725), a full 4 points higher than Oliver Zeidler in second place, and incidentally the highest average stroke rate of any crew in this comparison! The greater variety between the singles compared to the eights (all within 1 SPM of each other) might indicate that there is more room for individualized race tactics in the singles racing (at least when it comes to stroke rate) which differs significantly to an eight where stroke rate is decided on what is best for the crew as a whole.

Whatever the reason, it would appear that (at least in this example) single scullers can get away with rating anywhere between 34 and 42, while athletes racing the eights will have to set their sights on a stroke rate above 40spm to have a shot at the medals and develop the necessary technical proficiencies to effectively sustain a stroke rate above 40 SPM.

Mentality/Crew Dynamics

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the single scull and the eights is that one is an individual race, and the other involves a large team. Aside from the numbers, the role of the coxswain in the eight is especially important, not only are they in charge of steering down the course, but also coordinating the crew to execute the race plan, and to respond to the challenges of other crews. Aside from the coxswain, rowers in the eights must work together, timing the stroke, gauging stroke length and responding to rating changes in unison to ensure the boat reaches and maintains optimal speed. While athletes on the world stage make this look easy, coordinating eight rowers in a racing environment can be very challenging- and another reason why having an effective coxswain is so important. A rower in an eights race could spend the whole race only looking at the rower in front of them, with all race plan moves and responses relayed to them by the coxswain.

170927 Rowing WorldChampsUSA (195)-561

As you might expect, a single scullers experience is quite the opposite. As the only rower in the boat, a single sculler is in complete control of the race, and for executing and making changes to their own race plan. To do so, an athlete must juggle executing a pre-planned strategy designed to give them their best chance in the race, with watching the competition and responding to challenges as they are presented by their competitors. Unlike in the eights, a single sculler has no support from crew members or a coxswain when it comes to making decisions, or even finding extra motivation when the going gets tough. These key differences in the mentality of racing between eights athletes and single scullers, makes for specialized sets of mental skills between the different athletes each with their own set of challenges. In each case, it can take some time to learn and adjust to the mentality of racing in each of these different boats, and to acquire the mental skills necessary to manage the respective challenges of racing.

We would love to hear from you about your experiences racing in rowing, and which boat-classes
you enjoy to race or watch!

Let us know in the comments!